While Aaron Schock’s film “Circo” is a documentary about a traveling family circus in Mexico, it could’ve easily have been a devastating narrative film, the type of indie drama that is full of angst and sadness amidst a unique backdrop. Lest you think that’s an insult, it isn’t. “Circo” doesn’t play like reality; it’s hyper-reality, in that you get swept up in the drama of it all, and the tragedy of a cycle of family dysfunction that continues to turn long after the film wraps up.
The tale of “Circo” is the story of the Ponce family. Tino Ponce, father of four, travels around Mexico with his extended family, working for his mother and father and performing in the family-owned circus. Of course, times are tough for all, and the circus isn’t a well-staffed affair by any stretch of the imagination. To keep costs down, Tino’s children are not only constantly worked in setting up and taking down the circus, they also perform as contortionists and other circus acts, much to the chagrin of Tino’s wife Ivonne who is, at this stage, done with the circus life and praying her husband will finally make the decision for what is best for his own family, as opposed to his loyalty to his parents.
Again, this is a documentary, so all the drama is real and, sadly, the conflicts are ugly and predictable. While grandmother and grandfather Ponce collect the money from the circus, Tino and family wallow in debt, working to keep the circus going. An outside observer would call the behavior onscreen as straight-up exploitation, but for a family that’s been in the circus business for generations, they know no other way to be. When Tino laments the possibility of leaving his parents and the circus, he asks “what about my family?” Of course, it’s his family, wife and children, that are pushing him to leave, so the greater question is what his definition of “family” really is.
“Circo” is a character study as on-point and entertaining as any scripted narrative. It is not necessarily the most cheerful time I’ve had watching a film, but that’s not really a negative against it; it’s hard, as an audience member watching the show through the glass, to watch people make the same decisions time and time again, and seeing the same heartbreaking scenarios manifest over and over. In that case, that’s where the film benefits from being a documentary because, as a narrative, I might be hard-pressed to believe that people would continue to subject themselves to such emotional tragedy. Here, I have to believe because, well, it’s true.